I’ve Gotta Get Back in Thyme. . .Again

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Friday, July 29:  the day the road took me to my most poignant place.

On this sunny day I began a journey nearly 14 years in the making.  For it was on this day that I headed to Bonner Springs, KS to be a guest at Back in Thyme Bed and Breakfast and to review The Elephant Man for The Barn Players of Mission, KS.

If you’re a first time visitor to this website, The Elephant Man is my favorite play and it played a rather profound moment in my life.  For the full details of that story, click here.  I had long made my peace with the events of that day which is why I was so excited to finally have an opportunity to see the show and come fullish circle.  The timing couldn’t be more appropriate as this article will be posted on the 14th anniversary that I heard the results of that audition.

Bonner Springs is a suburb of Kansas City so it provides a unique blend of small town living with the perks of a nearby major metropolitan area for things to do.  Back in Thyme, owned and operated by Judy Vickers, is a beautiful “new-old” Queen Anne house nestled on a secluded acreage near Nettleton Avenue.

Given the size of the house I was surprised that it only boasted 3 bedrooms for rental.  On the other hand, the limited number of rooms does make it ideal for peace and quiet.  As I climbed the porch steps, I met Brantley and Ashley, fellow guests who were in the area to see a Rascal Flatts concert.  As I reached the top step, I was greeted by Judy, a very hospitable host and a fount of knowledge on fun things to do in the area.

Judy led me to the Bay Laurel Room which would serve as my base of operations.  It’s one of the most comfortable rooms in which I’ve stayed with its soft armchairs, burgundy walls, feather pillows, and a queen bed with a firm mattress.  The room also boasts a fireplace and I mildly wished it were colder so I could get a crackling blaze going.

I unwound in my room for a while before sprucing up for the show and enjoying a 6pm appetizer with Judy and a couple of her friends.  I ended up in a great conversation with Fred, a rather intelligent man who is currently writing three books.  I enjoyed a pleasant hour conversing with Fred as we nibbled on cheese, olives, crackers, and baba ganoush.

When Fred noticed traffic starting to back up on the highway, I decided to head over to the Barn Players.  Once more, Mapquest tried to put one over on me by telling me to make a right turn on a street when it should have been a left.  Shades of Richardson, TX flashed through my brain as I got my bearings and got back on the right track.  Luckily, I made it to the theatre with about 7 minutes to spare.

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The Barn Players is a bit of an institution in Mission and has quite an impressive reputation.  Many of its alumni have gone on to professional acting careers, most notably Chris Cooper.  The show was almost everything that I hoped it would be.  A few flaws kept it out of the excellent region, but it was still very good and thoroughly enjoyable.  You can read my review for the show here.

I returned to Back in Thyme where I wrote my review and curled up in my bed for a good night’s rest.

After a comfy night’s sleep, I awoke ravenous.  I headed downstairs and enjoyed chit-chat with Brantley and Ashley as we dined on Judy’s wonderful scrambled eggs cooked in thyme butter, crispy bacon, French toast, and fried apples.

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Having restored the inner man, I went upstairs to do a little work on the computer before deciding to take advantage of the pleasant day and walk along some trails I found behind the house.  Normally I like communing with nature, but I got a faceful of nature in the most literal sense as I stumbled through myriad spider webs as I wandered through the woods.  I escaped from the woods yanking webbing off of my face and hair.

Judy had suggested several areas of interest, some of which I will save for a future visit to the K.C. area, but I did take time to visit Bonner Springs’ famed Moon Marble Company.

As the name implies, the store is famed for its marbles and even gives demonstrations into a making of marbles, but the store is so much more than that.  The store also specializes in board games, puzzles, and classic toys.  I was amazed at all of the hard to find toys and games located in the shop.  Duncan Yo-yos, rare board games, Jacob’s ladders, Fisher-Price toys that I remembered from my childhood.  If you like vintage toys and games, take some time to visit Moon Marble Company if you find yourselves in Bonner Springs.

After I drove around the downtown area, I returned to the inn where I killed a few hours watching a mystery series before cleaning up for church and dinner.

I attended services at Good Shepherd Catholic Community in Shawnee, KS where I enjoyed a wonderful service preached by Fr. Oswaldo.  When services were done, I headed over to Hereford House for dinner.

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Hereford House is a Kansas City institution and this was one of the tastiest meals I have ever eaten.  I indulged in a small salad with creamy Italian dressing before supping on the main course of a 12 oz ribeye blackened with garlic butter and a side of Cheddar Ranch potatoes and a bit of bread.  Most of my dinner came back with me where it currently rests in the inn’s guest fridge for a future meal.

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I spent the remainder of the evening working on this article before turning in for the night.

I awoke to a rather gloomy day and am expecting some rain on the drive home.  I spent a bit of time editing this article and then went downstairs for another rousing breakfast.

At the table, I met Courtney and Ashley from Olathe, KS who had just come in from having coffee on the porch and we chatted while Judy served us a sumptuous meal of sausage, green chile egg casserole with salsa (now one of my favorite dishes), zucchini muffins, and cantaloupe.  The pleasant meal and talk was over much too quickly and I began to pack up for the drive home.

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So if you find yourself in the Kansas City area, spend an evening at Back in Thyme in Bonner Springs.  You’ll find some good (and healthy) home cooking on a peaceful estate with plenty to do nearby.

What Makes a Man?

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Take a good, long look at the above photo.  Imagine being caged in a body like that.  Hideously ugly.  Virtually crippled.  But inside that tragic figure your heart beats with the sensibilities of an artist, the innocence of a child, and the charming wit of a gentleman.  This was Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, who defied his pitiable circumstances to become the toast of London society.  His life story is the focus of The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance which is currently playing at the Barn Players Community Theatre.

Time for a little full disclosure.  This is my favorite play.  I know it backwards and forwards and am a cornucopia of knowledge in the history of the real Joseph (misnamed John) Merrick.  As you can imagine, I’ve got some pretty high standards for this show.  I’m very pleased to say that The Barn Players met my standards and even exceeded them at some points in a very powerful and poignant piece of storytelling.

Pomerance’s script is an interesting blend of historical fact (though some events are embellished for dramatic effect) and compelling themes such as strength of spirit, egoism, love, friendship, and what really makes us human.  Despite being the title character, Merrick’s presence is more of a force that touches the lives of everyone he meets in some form or another.  Some realize their own humanity while others lose theirs.  Interestingly, many of the other characters project their own qualities onto Merrick and only two actually see Merrick for the beautiful soul that he is.

These ideals make for storytelling at its finest and the cast and crew do a very good job on the whole in telling that story.

Mark Hamilton should be especially proud of his direction.  His staging is excellent and he has coached performances ranging from very good to superior from his actors.  I did note a couple of beats that could be mined for greater dramatic impact, but those moments can still bloom during this show’s run.

I consider the role of Merrick to be one of the most difficult and grueling an actor can undertake.  Not only does the actor playing the role need to be unbelievably versatile to handle the complexities of the character, he must also adopt an awkward and demanding body language to communicate the infirmities of Merrick.  With that being said, Coleman Crenshaw does extreme honor to the role.

Crenshaw certainly did his homework as he understands Merrick right down to the ground.  His physicality was tremendous, though he needs to keep that body language in mind at all times.  He made some movements that would either have been impossible for the real Merrick or done only with excruciating difficulty.  That quibble aside, his interpretation of the dialogue blew me away.

Crenshaw’s delivery is so nuanced it almost staggers the imagination.  With incredible ease, he captures Merrick’s innocence, wit, genius, fears, awkwardness, and goodness.  And he does it with a clogged and slobbering speech that still retains flawless diction.  His evolving of Merrick from frightened creature to bold man over the course of the show is a tour de force and I foresee Crenshaw being in the running for many local acting awards.

David Innis does a fairly good job as Dr. Frederick Treves, the doctor who found Merrick and gave him a home at the London Hospital.  Innis presents Treves as a full of himself young doctor who originally gets involved with Merrick solely because he is a good subject for study. His inherent decency appears when he brings Merrick to live at the London Hospital after he is abandoned by his manager.

From there, Innis does a marvelous job showing Treves’ awakening to his own humanity and ugliness as he comes to know Merrick’s internal beauty.  Treves grows to hate himself as he believes he has turned Merrick into a freak, albeit a high class one, as he introduces him to London society and bitterly regrets seeing him as a mere research subject.

One thing Innis must master during this run is to project.  He was so quiet that, had I not known the dialogue so well, I would not have understood large portions of his speeches.

Stefanie Stevens brings depth and intelligence to the role of Mrs. Kendal, the actress who befriends Merrick.  Originally brought in to visit Merrick because she is trained to hide her true emotions, Mrs. Kendal instantly recognizes the man within the monstrous body and forms a kinship with him.  Ms Stevens plays the role with an elegant sincerity and is especially impressive in the moment when she decides to grant Merrick’s fond desire of seeing a real woman in all of her naturalness.

Special notice also goes out to Jeph Scanlon and Sean Leistico who play the roles of Carr-Gomm and Ross.  As Carr-Gomm, the administrator of the London Hospital, Scanlon manages to be kindly if a little stiff and serious.  And I never thought I would make a critique like this, but he actually needs to enunciate a little less.  He was hitting his syllables so hard that it made his dialogue a little staccato.  Softening his syllables will let his speech have a more natural flow.

Leistico adds a third dimension to Ross with sheer force of acting ability.  The role could be treated as a throwaway, but Leistico is pathetically oily as the manager who robs Merrick of his life savings and is just pathetic when he comes crawling back, sick and dying, in the hopes that Merrick will throw away the life he’s created to be a high class freak.

Holly Daniel’s costumes are gorgeous and a perfect fit for Victorian era London.  Laura Burkhart has developed a wonderful “less is more” set that easily shifts from Merrick’s room to the hospital to Belgium.  I would also be remiss if I did not mention the music of Daniel Yung.  He provides all of the sounds and music of the show with a superior piece of cello playing that he suits to each and every moment of the play.

What ultimately makes the show so compelling is Merrick’s humanity and that teaches a valuable lesson to us all.  Life dealt him the worst possible hand and he did not become embittered by it. He rose above it and taught us all what it means to be human.

The Elephant Man plays at the Barn Players Community Theatre through August 14.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  There will be an industry night performance on Monday, August 8.  Tickets cost $18 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $12 for students (w/ID) and groups of 10 or more.  Industry night tickets are $12 at the door.  To order tickets, visit the Barn Players website at www.thebarnplayers.org or call 913-432-9100.  Parental discretion is advised due to a scene of partial nudity.  The Barn Players Community Theatre is located at 6219 Martway in Mission, KS.

‘The Producers’ Produce One Heckuva Show

Faded and failed Broadway producer, Max Bialystock, comes up with a crookedly inspired idea when mousey accountant, Leo Bloom, innocently states that, under the right circumstances, a person could make more money with a Broadway flop than a hit.  With Bloom’s help, Bialystock plots to produce the biggest Broadway bomb in history and escape to Rio with the cash.  This is The Producers written by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan and closes the season at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Brooks and Meehan do an excellent job translating Brooks’ classic movie to the stage.  Overall, it is a tight, well told story, though there were a couple of scenes that felt like they were added solely to pad the show.  Brooks proves himself to be an especially effective songwriter with a score riddled with memorable, rib tickling numbers.  The script is helped by a very effective cast who brought their A game to a nearly sold out opening night house.

Jeff Horger triumphs with a superior piece of direction.  The staging of the show is beyond reproach.  He has led his actors to a series of varied and vibrant performances.  The bits of business are spot on and the scene changes are smooth as satin.

Steve Krambeck caps an impressive season with a sterling performance as Leo Bloom that may stake him a claim to the Playhouse’s prestigious Fonda-McGuire award.  It was a real treat to watch Krambeck play against type as the shy and repressed accountant who dreams to be a Broadway producer.  He stuns with his visceral uncomfortableness around women and his obsessive cuddling of his baby blanket when he gets overstressed.  Krambeck constructs a wonderful arc for Bloom as he grows in confidence during the course of the play and transforms from a mouse to a man.

Krambeck has an incredibly mellow tenor singing voice that I could sit and listen to all day.  This instrument was used to the fullest in numbers such as We Can Do It, I Wanna Be a Producer, and the  sweet That Face and ‘Til Him.  Krambeck also proved himself a surprisingly agile and graceful hoofer with his dance numbers.

Jim McKain’s performance as Max Bialystock is pitch perfect.  He’s so oily, so greedy, so much of a scoundrel.  Yet, deep down, he has a core of decency that peeks out from time to time and only grows stronger as Bloom’s niceness rubs off on him.  McKain has a very mighty tenor voice which soars in The King of Broadway, Where Did We Go Right?, and especially in Betrayed which is not only musically pleasing, but a physical acting tour de force.

Mike Palmreuter’s turn as Franz Liebkind is howlingly funny.  As the off kilter, bird loving, Nazi loyalist, Palmreuter nearly rips off this show.  His character is the author of Springtime for Hitler, the play within the play that Liebkind wrote to clear Hitler’s reputation.  Palmreuter’s bass voice beautifully booms in tunes like Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop and Have You Ever Heard the German Band?  His powerful frame disguises the fact that he is a nimble dancer whose animated moves provided some of the biggest laugh out loud moments of the night.

Lindsey Ussery is a sweet delight as Ulla, the Swedish woman trying to break into entertainment.  Ms Ussery has a good sense of movement maximized in her enticing audition for Bloom and Bialystock in When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It.  She has a pleasant alto voice which I rather enjoyed in This Face and her Swedish accent held up quite well.  Ms Ussery did sound a bit breathy at some points, so she’ll need to remember to keep up the breath support.

Ryan Pivonka is a scream as Roger DeBris.  DeBris is an overwrought queen who thinks shows should always remember to Keep it Gay.  He’s a lousy director who proves to be an equally inept actor when he is compelled to take over the role of Hitler and gives a 5 star horrific performance that had the audience guffawing at the top of their lungs in Springtime for Hitler.  Pivonka also rocks an evening gown surprisingly well.

The show’s ensemble cast was a hit with their sly little acting moments and extremely slick dancing.  Particular notice goes out to Don Harris who excels in several character roles, especially with his performance as Bloom’s bullying boss, Mr. Marks.  Zach Kloppenborg brings it as Carmen Guia, DeBris’ histrionic “common-law assistant”.  And I would also like to tip my hat to the puppeteer of Liebkind’s birds who gave a dandy performance of their own.

Jim Boggess and his orchestra couldn’t hit a wrong note if they tried.  Melanie Walters deserves an award for her choreography.  This was the best choreography I have seen in my 20 years in the business and you’re going to be amazed at what Ms Walters can do with a slew of walkers in Along Came Bialy.  Jim Othuse does some of his best work yet in the many pieces of scenery built from this show from the office of Bloom and Bialystock to the outside of the theatre to the multiple bits of scenery needed for the massive Springtime for Hitler scene.  Amanda Fehlner should be proud of her costuming especially in the musical within a musical as the stormtrooper and chorus girl outfits were some of the most creative I’ve seen.

The Producers is what good comedy is all about.  It doesn’t try to share a message and it doesn’t have a lot of depth.  It’s just a lot of fun and will take you out of yourself for a while.  The work of the entire cast and crew, especially that of Krambeck and McKain, will blow you away and I do believe I hear the sweet sound of cash registers ringing for the Playhouse, so be sure to buy a ticket today.

The Producers runs at the Playhouse through June 26.  Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $30 for adults and $20 for students on Wednesdays and $40 for adults and $25 for students Thurs-Sun.  For tickets, contact the box office at 402-553-0800 or visit their website at www.omahaplayhouse.com.  Parental discretion is advised for the show due to a little strong language and some suggestive moments.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

 

Young Frankenstein is a Fiendishly Funny Finale for Beck and Baer-Collins

Take one part classic film comedy, add a musical score, sprinkle with high energy performances, mix liberally with top flight directing, and you’ve got Young Frankenstein.  The Playhouse’s season finale is the funniest comedy of the season as well as a fitting farewell from artistic leaders, Carl Beck and Susie Baer-Collins, who are retiring after the close of this production.

Once the first notes from the talented orchestra, led by the strong conducting of Jim Boggess, are played, you will be whisked into a world straight out of a Universal horror picture illustrated by a haunting and archaic set designed by Jim Othuse, who has really topped himself with this production.  The funny, inventive, and nuanced direction from Baer-Collins and Beck, combined with a superb troupe of performers, and sharp choreography from Melanie Walters will have your ribs aching from laughter when the night is through.

I’m always a bit leery when a show is changed from one medium to another because something is usually lost in the translation.  However, I was quite surprised by how well this show worked as a musical.  The numbers felt natural and I really enjoyed the use of metahumor as the show repeatedly acknowledges the fact that this is a musical.  As good as the show was, I did think the script was a bit weaker than its source material as the musical eliminates some great scenes and jokes from the film version and replaces them with gags that are hit and miss.  But any jokes that miss the mark are quickly forgotten thanks to the talented group of performers gracing the stage.

High praise is due to the talented ensemble which proves the old adage about there being no small roles.  Each member is always fully involved with the show, adding delightful bits of character to their performance which made them a treat to watch.  Especially entertaining were Christopher Work as Ziggy, the town idiot and Steve Krambeck, who owns the stage in a cameo as Victor Frankenstein where he displays an amazing singing voice as he persuades Frederick to “Join the Family Business”.

Ablan Roblin has a heavy load to bear as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein/Fronkunsteen.  Blessed with a fine, tenor voice, Roblin does well with the singing part of the role, but he lacked an x factor that I believe was necessary for the character on the acting side.  Roblin also had a few moments where his projection and diction weakened and he also sped over a couple of lines that would have been hilarious with a slower pace and slight change of delivery.  That being said, he also has some shining moments such as when he meets Igor (“Together Again for the First Time) and when he attempts to persuade the Monster that he is loved (“Man About Town”).

This night belonged to Spencer Williams who seemed to be channeling Marty Feldman in his interpretation of Frankenstein’s servant, Igor/Eyegor.  From the moment Williams makes his first entrance, he had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand.  With subtle shifts of expression, brilliant phrasing, and a hunched over, rubbery kneed posture, Williams stole every scene he was in and gave one of the three strongest performances seen on a Omaha stage this season.

Equally brilliant was Judy Radcliff as Frau Blucher, the housekeeper and girlfriend of the late Victor Frankenstein.  Matching Williams’ Igor step for step with her impeccable comic timing, Ms Radcliff had the audience rolling in the aisles with her stonefaced, overenunciating, surly antics.  Proving just as effective on the musical side, Ms Radcliff has one of the evening’s best numbers as her powerful alto voice belts out “He Was My Boyfriend”.

Kirstin Kluver has a nice turn as Inga, Dr. Frankenstein’s lab assistant.  Utilizing a flawless Swedish accent, Ms Kluver infuses Inga with a balanced blend of sweetness and sultriness.  Her impressive soprano voice also delighted the audience with renditions of “Roll in the Hay” and “Listen to Your Heart”.

Ryan Pivonka does an exceptional job with the role of the Monster.  Despite being limited to grunts for most of the show, Pivonka manages to put meaning behind those grunts so you always know what the Monster is thinking.  He also has an expertly developed sense of movement as his clunky steps as the Monster still have a type of grace and fluidity about them.

Julia Mackenzie is one of the show’s highlights as Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancée, Julia.  Though engaged to Frederick, Ms Mackenzie’s Julia is clearly in love with herself.  So vain is she that Frederick is only allowed physical contact with her in his dreams (“Please Don’t Touch Me).  Ms. Mackenzie’s devastating comic acumen and soaring vocals provided some very nice moments in the production.

Joe Dignoti is a hoot in the dual role of Inspector Kemp/the Hermit.  As Inspector Kemp, Dignoti keeps the audience in stitches with his stiff right arm and left leg and a brilliantly over the top accent.  He’s even funnier as the blind hermit who pleads with God to “Please Send Me Someone” with a facile bass.  Dignoti’s accidental torturing of the Monster as the Hermit is one of the funniest scenes in the play.

Ultimately the show is a truly satisfying night of entertainment and a classic example of the void that will be left in the theatre community after Beck and Baer-Collins take their final bows.  Don’t miss the opportunity to see them shine one last time through this production.

Young Frankenstein plays at the Omaha Playhouse until June 29.  Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $40 ($24 for students). Call the theatre for reservations at 402-553-0800.   The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.